By Julia Anderson
The most high stakes game of Bingo you have ever laid eyes on takes place each Friday at St. Joe’s Women’s Centre. The prizes might not be glamourous or expensive, but for the homeless and vulnerably housed women who use St. Joe’s as their sanctuary, winning a little something extra can go a long way. On Friday January 22nd, as morning waned into afternoon, the women began to gather around the long wooden table and clamoured to ensure their names were on the list to participate in the game. The coveted prizes of the week were donated purses that Jen, a Social Service student at Algonquin College completing a practicum at St. Joe’s, worked hard to fill with as many treats as possible: hats, mittens, scarves, and chocolate.
St. Joe’s was founded in 1984 and began primarily as a drop in centre where women could come in to get out of the cold or seek shelter. Over the years the centre has moved locations and blossomed into a fully functioning daytime shelter that provides women with specific programs to meet their needs. Many of these changes and improvements are the result of the hard work done by devoted staff members such as Isabelle Mackay and Michelle Torunski, who are the program coordinators at St. Joe’s.
The cohesion among staff is obvious. When one staff member needed help in an area, someone was always there without having to be asked, as though they could sense each other’s needs without having to be told.
St. Joe’s serves breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, along with continuously replenished pots of coffee, as well as their own food bank that women can access on an emergency basis. In addition, they offer support to women with children, providing an area where kids can play and a baby cupboard program where mothers can pick up essentials for their babies such as formula and diapers. Women also have access to toiletries, a shower, and a washer and dryer that they can use.
Michelle noted that most of the women either live in shelters or in vulnerable housing such as rooming houses and social housing. Women who are vulnerably housed are often at risk of becoming homeless.
“I think that it’s a risk for anybody. We do see women in those different transitions, so sometimes we see them and they’re doing really well and they’re housed and everything’s going great, and then something happens and they lose their housing. We’ve seen it a lot lately, with people downtown selling off a lot of the different buildings that are low income,” said Isabelle.
The front door of St. Joe’s Women’s Centre
The selling off of low income buildings means that people are given a date that they are expected to move out by and find another affordable place to live in a short period of time, putting a lot of people in a very difficult situation. St. Joe’s allows women who are struggling with issues like this to use their services to help them get back on their feet and lets them know that they are not alone in their difficulties.
Michelle noted that, “We’ve had women who come in, sit on their own, have their coffee, have their breakfast. But we notice maybe a month later they’re starting to talk to that one person that they see every day or they’re starting to connect with a staff member particularly or something like that, so we do see the kind of progression from where people start and where they get to as well.”
“I think it’s important to have places where people can come and feel like they’re at home because a lot of them, if we’re closed let’s say Christmas or something, they are so concerned about where they’re going to go and who they’re going to be with and it’s really a scary thought to be alone. Sometimes we see people every day and they don’t talk to anybody at all, but they just feel that kind of warmth of being around people that do care,” Isabelle added.
St. Joe’s offers a multitude of services to meet the needs of the women who seek their help, but arguably the most important service that they provide is giving women a place where they can feel at home and providing them with a sense of community. At St. Joe’s, women know they can always feel safe and welcome.